Night Sky Photography Guide

The night sky provides the ultimate canvas for the creative photographer. Naturally, much of the time you’ll be shooting without any light pollution, which means that stars will generally be plentiful and the milky way will hang beautifully across the sky. But there are many different types of night photography and so this article will try to lay out some of the most common tips for photographing under these conditions.

Dark Skies

man standing under northern lights

Probably the most important requirement for night sky photography is dark skies. If you live in or near a brightly lit city, such as London, then photographing at night will be extremely difficult. Even if you don’t live in a major city, but there are street lights and other forms of light pollution around your home then it will make things very difficult indeed. However, there are certainly options for those living in more urban areas – if your neighborhood is too bright to shoot the stars then start looking further afield. It is also worth considering whether the location of your home (e.g., on the edge of a city) may influence the light pollution you see at night.

Many of the world’s most famous dark sky locations can be found around the edges of major cities. For example, the darkest skies in the UK are around the Lake District and in Iceland. But if you can’t make it as far as these places then there are plenty of options closer to home. I will provide you with some ideas later in the article but let’s get to how to shoot night sky photography first.

What Gear Do You Need For Night Sky Photography?

What Type Of Camera Do You Use?

This really depends on your level of photography. If you’re just starting out then it is highly likely that you’ll be using a DSLR, and it is definitely worth considering a DSLR with the kit lens to lower your initial cost.

More advanced photographers should opt for a mirrorless camera, such as a DSLR or mirror less compact system camera. These are invariably smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts, making them perfect for long exposures even in the dark.

What Lens To Use For Taking Pictures of the Sky at Night

Wide Angle

If you’re shooting for one image and want to take full advantage of the wide angle of the lens then look no further than a 16-35mm lens. This offers incredible amounts of depth of field, and will therefore allow you to blur out the foreground so that you can focus on the stars alone. Something like this is well worth investing in as it is a very versatile lens.

Medium Wide Angle (20-24mm)

A 20-24mm lens is ideal for shooting landscapes and cityscapes. This gives you a wonderful perspective and plenty of depth of field, making it perfect for taking night sky photos when you want to get that milky way shot. This can be a more expensive lens than the 16-35mm but looks great nevertheless. I’ve used this myself on a number of occasions, and I’m yet to find a reason not to invest in one.

Telephoto (70-200mm)

A telephoto lens is perfect if you want to get up close to the milky way. A telephoto zoom will allow you to push your camera deep into the darkness and capture stunning images of the night sky. This is the most expensive lens option but it is definitely worth investing in as it will open up a whole new world of possibilities for your photography.

Do You Need a Tripod for Night Sky Photography?

Regardless of the type of lens you use, shooting a long exposure at night is very difficult without a tripod. If there are any noticeable movements in your image then it will almost always be down to camera shake. If you’re new to photography, however, then you may struggle to be able to hold your camera still for long enough and so telescopic monopods can help take the strain off your arms while also providing enough stability for proper night sky shots.

What Other Gear Do You Need for Night Sky Photography?

lighthouse with milky way above
Headlamp

Make sure that you have a torch too. If you are getting up close to the milky way then you’ll need a light to help set up your shot and allow you to focus properly on the milky way’s position without adding light pollution.

Tripod Head & Quick Release Plate

If you can find a head with a spirit level, such as the Manfrotto MHXPRO-BHQ2 Ball Head with Level and Security Lock , then this will be very helpful when trying to focus on the milky way. It is also useful to buy a quick release plate so that you can quickly detach your camera from the tripod and allow yourself to walk around while shooting.

Remote Shutter Release

If your camera has a remote shutter release then you should definitely use it, as this will decidedly cut down on the chances of image blurring caused by you moving the camera during the long exposure.

Neutral Density Filters

Neutral density filters are one of the most effective things that you can use to shoot at night. These are either screw-in or clip in filters that allow you to increase the light-gathering properties of your lens. This is particularly important if you’re using a wide angle lens, such as a 16mm lens.

Filters can be purchased from different sources, including Amazon. Each filter is slightly different so make sure that you search for the one that best suits your needs. Obviously, the higher the number of stops that it reduces, the greater effect it will have on reducing light and so should be used with care.

How To Setup For Night Photography

Once you have all the gear that you need for night photography, the next step is to set up. Setting up your camera and tripod is pretty much the same as setting up for regular photography. The only difference is that you’ll need to find a spot that’s both dark and far enough away from light pollution.

For things to keep in mind, it is best not to use your car or house as your backdrop as you’ll have a source of light pollution right in the back of your shot.

What is the Best ISO for Night Sky Photography?

The ISO (or sensitivity) setting of your camera will have a huge effect on the final picture quality you achieve. With night photography, you’ll need to set your camera at a lower ISO than if you were taking photographs during the day. Generally, the best ISO setting for this kind of photography is between 400 and 1600. At a lower ISO, your image quality will be better, but it takes longer to capture an image while also consuming more battery power.

What is NPF Rule?

The NPF rule is a very simple and effective method to figure out how long you should leave your shutter open. To use this, take the ISO setting and divide by 3. If you’re using ISO 400, then the NPF Rule says that your exposure time should be 8 seconds or less.

How to Focus Your Lens for Night Photography?

There are two things that could prevent you from getting a sharp image when shooting the night’s sky: camera shake and focusing your lens. Luckily, both of these issues are very easy to fix. The first thing you need to do is invest in a good tripod so that your camera doesn’t move while you’re taking the photo.

Once you’ve taken care of your camera movement, the next step is to focus your lens on something far away. This will ensure that your lens isn’t out of focus when it comes time to take a picture.

How Do I Shoot Night Sky with my Phone?

What if you only have your phone handy when a great night sky photography opportunity hits? The good news is that shooting the night sky with your phone is actually easy. Although a DSLR might be a more popular option, shooting the night sky with your phone is still possible.

Give yourself plenty of time to get the shot perfect. Start out by bringing your phone’s camera to maximum aperture (lowest f-number) to allow in as much light as possible!

On a bright, clear night, hold your camera’s lens at a low angle. This will cast a long shadow of any foreground objects and eliminate unwanted elements in your photograph. It’s also a good idea to use a tripod so you don’t have to worry about moving the camera when releasing the shutter.

What Are Some Great Locations For Night Sky Photographs?

Chimney Rock National Monument in the Black Hills of Southest Colorado.

Numerous national parks, federal recreation areas, and state parks are prime locations for night sky photography. Some favorites include:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado: This park is located near Montrose, Colorado and offers views of the Milky Way from a famous tunnel carved into the canyon wall. Nearby Crested Butte is an excellent home base for exploring this area.

And one of the most iconic night sky shots is of the Northern Lights.

It has also been the place to go for a unique experience. While the Northern Lights are visible from many areas in Iceland, you can also get great shots of the Northern Lights in Canada and Alaska.

Conclusion

Night skies are one of the best ways to get your photography going. Since many photographers already have a dslr (or at least have access to one) night photography is an easy way to start getting into art. Just be sure to get the right lens and learn how to properly focus and shoot at night before you go out on any traditional adventures.